Document search is doomed for the SaaS graveyard

We were absolutely convinced that finding documents across cloud apps was the best problem for us to solve. We had done tons of customer research. Hundreds of interviews and onboarding calls, thousands of survey responses, dozens of user tests, it goes on and on. 

We were sure that the problem was painful and worth pursuing. 

And then suddenly, we weren’t.

We had to face reality. Document search was literally a dead end. Our dreams of building a massive business focused entirely on document search were over.

Back in August 2020, my co-founder Marie and I wrote an internal document called “It’s Time to Pivot” to solidify our thinking on why we had to drop the document search focus. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t making a hasty decision about the future of our business.

We didn’t appreciate back then just how much that one document would affect us. It was the thing that led us to pivot 100% away from document search for employees and into document access control for IT. 

But what was wrong with document search? After all, there are still a bunch of companies in the space trying to win hearts and minds.

Here are a few excerpts from our “It’s Time to Pivot” document.

Committees rule the buying process
In trying to sell our product to companies, we quickly learned that there was no one buyer or single owner for document search tools. Instead, there were committees. Take someone from IT, sprinkle in a few people from engineering, add in an HR leader and someone from the product side, and you’ve got yourself a team of people who are going to do a lot of work for 3-9 months and then abandon it all. We met with committee after committee and saw enterprise search initiatives die again and again.

Too many apps
Our perspective was that to give customers enough context to find the documents they need, we had to get information from the APIs of each app that a company uses. The need to build integrations for different collaboration apps was huge because every company used a different set of apps. Google Workspace, Office 365, Box, Dropbox, Dropbox Paper, Miro, Notion, Coda, Figma, and more. This meant we had to integrate with app after app. We ended up building 24 integrations before we paused the effort.

Inadequate APIs
We learned that early and new APIs, while exciting, are a drag. Some products took years to add APIs, and once they were ready we quickly realized their functionality was inadequate for what we needed to build. And then there were all the API changes and deprecations we had to keep on top of. Plus, even the APIs of more established apps were missing information we needed to populate our interface. It became a never-ending mountain of work and even then it would lead to an inconsistent experience for our customers. The APIs were not consistent across apps, so many of our integrations remained incomplete.

Adoption issues
Our goal was to have widespread adoption of our tool across an organization. It’s usually called “wall-to-wall” adoption. We discovered that even the collaboration apps we integrated with don’t get full company adoption. Notion, Coda, Airtable, Dropbox Paper, even Google Drive don’t get used by every single person at a company. Oftentimes departments use specific tools in isolation from the rest of the company. Even though a company might use G Suite, the legal and finance teams might refuse to use it and instead collaborate on Office 365. How could we expect our search tool to get full company adoption if the collaboration apps can’t in the first place?

Locked down auth
Our strategy was to get adoption from the bottom up within companies. A groundswell of employee app usage would mean that we’d be able to sell in at the company level easier. Except many companies lock down the ability for employees to authenticate with apps without permission. Some even lock down the ability to download apps or install chrome extensions. This meant the bottom-up strategy would only work at smaller companies, and typically not at larger companies. We wouldn’t be able to scale the business and get wall-to-wall adoption without a top-down sales motion.

In hindsight, it’s easy to assume that we should have recognized these challenges earlier. But in reality, you can paralyze your execution if you take every challenge too seriously. Worse yet, you might not even get started if you focus on the challenges versus executing to learn.

When you start a company, you never know where you’re going to end up. The journey and learnings along the way are what determine where you go.

For us, getting as far as we did on the document search product helped us discover the massive opportunity that we’re on to now. Along the way, we were also able to gain priceless experience working with APIs and building out the technical capabilities to deliver on the critical needs of our new IT customers. That experience enabled us to build truly unique technology that’s solving a major problem for companies of all sizes.

In the coming weeks, I’ll share more about what’s in store for the next chapter of our journey.

Take care,

Hiten =)

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